Could you have done more, Hans Blix?
"Yes, I could have got tougher with the Iraqis"
When did you realise that there would be a war?
– Very late on. I kept hoping right to the last. On the Sunday before the invasion I was called by the State Department at work. They wanted to warn us that there was now an imminent risk of war.
What did you feel then?
– At first, disappointment. That we wouldn’t be able to continue. Iraq had become so active in trying to give us material. Then came relief at being able to get the 134 people I was responsible for out of the country. We were worried that they might be taken hostage, but the Iraqis were helpful.
Could you have done anything differently?
– Yes, maybe I could have got tougher with the Iraqis already back in December.
How would things have turned out in that case?
– Of course it wasn’t until the end of January that the Iraqis really roused themselves. Perhaps they might have tried harder. That would have been better. Then we would have been able to make more positive statements about the attitude of the Iraqis.
Why did you take the job?
– I believed there was a chance to resolve this. At first, the Iraqis were very reluctant to meet with us. But with the external pressure that was brought to bear, they became more inclined to allow the inspections. The start of the US military build-up was decisive in this. There would not have been any inspections without it.
– That kind of pressure was good, but when it spills over into war, it’s a failure.
What do you think about the US and the UK choosing to go to war?
– As I am an official working under the Security Council, I would rather not take a personal stand. But it has been stated by the Secretary General and many other experts in international law that the war is not line with the Charter of the United Nations.
What was your life plan at that time you were offered the job?
– I was in a queue to the airport when Kofi Annan called me. We were on our way to the world’s most southerly city, Ushuaia in Argentina, to take a ship to Antarctica. My wife was the ambassador for matters related to the Arctic and Antarctic and she thought we should go there and see for ourselves. I thought it was fun. There were a great many penguins, seals, and such like there. I said to Kofi Annan that I wasn’t particularly interested in this job and he said that it wasn’t an easy assignment. When I got to the ship I had had time to talk it over with my wife and we had arrived at the idea that it would take a year and a half. So I said OK. They faxed the resolution to the ship.
Why were you hesitant about taking the job?
– I had no great desire to move away from home. I have lived abroad for 16 years and we had just managed to puzzle together our furniture. Eva came from Brussels where she has had a house and I had had one in Vienna. So the real diplomatic negotiations were over how we would combine our furniture and what we would get rid of.
In the home of Swede Hans Blix, now world famous, the walls are awash with artworks, big oils, very tiny Skunk sketches and silky-soft antique rugs. Every square meter of the floor is covered with more rugs, and an enormous brown bear lies in front of the open fire.
– Eva’s teddy bear, laughs Hans Blix.
He is on a lightning visit to the Stockholm apartment of his wife Eva. Between doctors’ visits, an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais and packing for the return trip to New York in the morning, we meet in the living room drenched with early spring sunshine. For three years he has led the hunt for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
What significance did your age have for the job?
– I had undergone surgery on my back a year before and was fully recovered. I felt quite fit and healthy and had just hiked and climbed and felt quite strong, too.
– I haven’t had a single day of illness for three years!
How do you keep fit and healthy?
– I walk to work.
How has the job been?
– Obviously it’s been exciting. It’s a challenge all the time! Is it possible to get a really clear picture about weapons of mass destruction? Is it possible to destroy them entirely? The sad part is that we were never able to follow through with this.
How close did you get to the Iraqi negotiators?
– We ate some meals together in Vienna. When things were not too good, we drank coffee together in New York. It’s not like you start hitting each other over the head with frying pans! You have some distance, but between the negotiations you talk ‘off the record’ and that is quite good. Then you can test out ideas. “What do you think about this?” without being formally bound by the answer.
What drives you?
– Peace of course. But I don’t have any illusions. I believe strongly in the UN but it’s just as unfortunate to have a naive trust in everything as it is to be entirely cynical. There’s a lot you can do there but you shouldn’t believe that everything can be resolved that way.
– I’ve also always thought that it would be exciting to achieve something, results are so wonderful!
What’s it like being world famous?
– It’s something new to be walking down the street or out somewhere and have people recognise you. But so far people have been friendly. People come up to me and shake hands and say thank you, you are doing a great job and I hope that you will succeed. A striking number of Americans do that.
Are you concerned about your own safety?
– Not at all in fact. But now what we all wanted to avoid has occurred, and I’ve had a bodyguard since some time ago. It was the UN that decided this. One gets such a high profile. We weren’t afraid that the Iraqis would do anything – they had a much bigger interest in me being alive than dead. If something had happened to me, it would most probably have been ascribed to the Iraqis, and then their situation would have been made even worse. But there are always nutcases out there.
Has anything happened to you?
– No. Well, actually, quite a funny thing. I got a package once that the police had to take care of. It was chocolate from an Italian friend. I wrote and thanked my friend for his kindness and told him that the package had mobilized all of New York’s bomb squad dogs. Ha ha!
What is Saddam Hussein like?
– I’ve never met the man! He probably sees himself as the emperor of Mesopotamia and doesn’t bother himself unnecessarily with such lowly creatures as UN inspectors.
But you have met George Bush?
– Yes, once. We were invited to the White House. That was together with Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. They are morning people and very alert at that hour. Bush is terribly alert in the morning! In New York, you almost never meet people before 10 a.m. I don’t function very well early in the morning. Ha ha!
What did Bush want?
– He was anxious to assure us of the US’s wholehearted support. This was positive of course, but we didn’t know for how long that would last. As it turned out, it didn’t last longer than until mid March.
What criticism have you fielded?
– I’ve got a few enemies at lower levels that take pot shots at me from time to time, (Per) Ahlmark and others. They have said that I was too soft with the Iraqis.
How do you take such criticism?
– Like a mosquito bite.
What’s your opinion of the job you have done?
– I think that I managed to put together a credible and impartial team of UN inspectors that have the confidence and trust of everyone on the Security Council. My reports were received as genuine descriptions of reality.
How did the job turn out to be in relation to your expectations?
– In the beginning I believed that it was possible to persuade the Iraqis, but I became rapidly pessimistic.
It seems incredible that the regime would risk the entire country just so they could keep some possible weapons of mass destruction, don’t you think?
– I agree with you on that. I said so to the Iraqis. They responded that these are not weapons of mass destruction but weapons for self-defence.
What conclusions do you draw from the fact that the allies have not found any weapons of mass destruction?
– It’s a bit too early to draw the conclusion that there aren’t any. There will be a period of time now when they will be able to gather testimonies.
Why hasn’t Iraq used these weapons?
– This has to do with the fact that there is such strong criticism of the war in the world. They must know that if they were to use weapons of mass destruction, this criticism would be greatly weakened. People would say “They had weapons of mass destruction all the time – they’ve been lying the whole time.”
But why refrain from using them when the existence of the regime is threatened?
– Its demise is probable anyway. For Saddam, it might make a difference what kind of posthumous reputation he has. He perceives himself as an Arabic hero and he would certainly rather go down in history as a hero than as a liar.
Why are you leaving this assignment?
– I had hoped to be able to lead it through to a conclusion. But now things have gone into another phase. There’s talk of long-term monitoring. So for me it’s time to leave the assignment.
What are you going to do now?
– I’m going to write a book about Iraq and North Korea, maybe pick a few mushrooms in the summer, get some exercise, live a healthier life.